Authors: Evelyn Aster
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
Royce rubbed his cheek. “Your slap hurt more.”
She shifted her eyes down, unable to take the intensity of his stare.
He leaned across the table. “I'd really like to start again.”
His voice raised the hairs on the back of her neck, and she made the mistake of glancing up. He looked too handsome. Even the bruise worked for him.
She reprimanded herself. Just because he was gorgeous didn't mean he wasn't a jerk. “And I'd really like you to leave me alone.”
He smiled. “Maybe I'll see you on the slopes.”
Her food arrived as he stood to leave, and Grace dug in.
Her anger lessened as her stomach filled. It was good to have food again. Maybe she was being too mean. It had been Mile High's decision to let her go, not his.
No. Only a bastard would have a job like that.
Grace stood at the top of a double black diamond slope, glad to be away from people, especially Royce and Doug. Snow from the previous night weighted down the branches on the trees, contrasting with the blue sky. Cold air nipped at her cheeks—the only part of her body uncovered.
She pushed off with her poles, loving the way the snow flew up. Skiing down hard trails gave her the same joy as puzzles or programs.
She spent the morning forgetting about her job situation as she zoomed down the slopes and relaxed on the lift rides back up. The only intrusion to her peace was thoughts of Royce. Hopefully he was on the beginner slopes far away, but she doubted it.
She hopped off the ski lift after stopping for lunch and headed over to the start of one of her favorite trails. Thoughts of Royce still intruded, but she'd completely forgotten about Doug by now. That made it all the more jarring when she heard his voice behind her.
He skied over from his perch on a rock. It was almost like he’d been waiting for her, which sent a shiver up her spine. She didn't even say hello.
“Your form isn't bad, but you should bend at the knees more when you go over the moguls.”
“Quit stalking me.”
“I'm not stalking you. I just thought that since you and I were hired at the same time and fired at the same time, we might try going out.”
“That doesn't mean we have anything in common except our failed job.”
“But we do. You're a perfectionist. I'm a perfectionist. We'd make a great team. I'm sure I could get you to break all those rules I hear about.”
Grace tightened her grip around her ski poles, and her body broke into a sweat under all the ski gear. She hated it when men wanted her to break the rules for them. She yelled, “I would never break my rules for you, and do you want to know why? You say you're a perfectionist, but you're an asshole about it. You find a flaw and either complain to whoever you think did it, or if it's you, find someone else to blame. When I see a problem, I just fix it, whether it's mine or not. And every time you've talked to me since I was fired, you've found something to pick at me about. Since I am a perfectionist, having my flaws talked about is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. You and I are not going out.”
Grace was so upset that she unlatched her skis and stomped over to sit on a boulder.
“You're making a mistake, Grace,” he yelled. “And the rest of the programmers think you're a bitch since you won't answer any of their emails.”
She ignored him and pulled her knees to her chest, her skis lying at the base of the rock. Finally he shoved his poles into the ground and took off down the slope. She hoped he broke his leg.
She put her head on her knees, trying to block out the rest of the world. But the cold from the rock crept through her ski pants and kept her alert. The sound of skis drew near.
To make the moment worse, she heard the voice that at breakfast had raised the hairs on the back of her neck. “Hey, anything I can do to help?”
She should've asked Jill to join her. They might've grown closer, and Jill would've kept the losers away. She'd have to call her tonight. Without lifting her head, Grace mumbled, “Just go away.”
Silence answered her. He was right next to her. She sighed and looked up. Royce's eyes expressed concern. It'd be easier to ignore if his goggles were on, but they hung around his neck.
He said, “You must be pretty good to do this run.”
The compliment was a relief after the constant badgering from Doug. She found herself saying, “It's one of my favorites.”
“How often do you ski?”
She didn't know if it was her sudden sense of loneliness or his easy manner, but she found herself responding with personal information. “Several times every winter. That’s why I live in Denver.”
“If I lived here, I'd ski all winter too.”
Naturally. Her perfect man except that he’d axed her. “Why are you wasting your time on me? I don't want anything to do with you.”
“Because you're smart and beautiful. And you already know what I do. Revealing my job is a huge turn off to women.”
Smart and beautiful. She heard the smart part often, but never beautiful. He was playing at something. “Gee, what a surprise. I'd think you'd keep it a secret.”
“I don't like to keep secrets from people I care about.”
Her insides squirmed. She wouldn't be able to hold up much longer under the assault of his smooth talk and good looks. This had to be some sort of weird game. He couldn't really mean these things. “I don't care about you. Could you just start your run already?”
“I'd rather you went first so I don't have to worry about you sitting up here all dejected. ”
She had to get rid of this guy. There was no way he was going to seduce her. She needed to take control. An idea popped into her mind, and she spoke before she considered it. “How about we race to the bottom of the hill? If I win, you leave the ski resort so I can finish my weekend in peace.”
He gave her a measuring look and then turned towards the trail. She looked over at it too. Trees capped with snow crowded the hill, creating several divergent paths. Her favorite path had more moguls than the others, but fewer trees.
After a moment he said, “Sure. But if I win, you have to go to dinner with me tonight—with an open mind.”
She had to admire his persistence. But dinner with him would be too much time with the enemy. She knew these slopes better than an out of towner, even if he was a great skier. She'd win. She said, “I can't guarantee the open mind, but otherwise, deal.”
She clipped her skis back on and pushed herself over to the top of the trail. He skied up to her, and she heard him sigh.
He said, “Full disclosure: I grew up here and raced down this hill all the time in high school. You can call off the bet if you want.”
What was his deal? She'd never expect someone like him to admit anything out of a sense of fairness. But she needed to beat him. It would make her feel better about the layoff. She put her goggles on and said, “High school was a long time ago. Let's go.”
He grinned. “Don't say I didn't warn you.”
Charged with new energy from the bet, she crouched down and put her goggles on. A moment of hesitation slipped in when she looked over at him. He'd gone to an awful lot of trouble to get her on a date. He could have any woman in the resort with his looks and, she had to admit, charm.
She tightened her grip on her poles and shoved aside any warming up to him. With a job like his, trying to get her to go out with him was probably some sort of sick conquest game he played. She'd beat his ass down the slopes and send him home. She shouted, “Ready.”
He looked straight ahead.
He turned to her, and she saw him wink behind his goggles.
He was so good looking. Bastard. “Go!”
She pushed off with her poles, but he jumped ahead. Grace stayed calm. The path he'd taken was cluttered with several close trees. She glided by trees as well, but they soon opened up. Moguls met her, but at least she could see clearly for a while. She turned in the valleys of the bumps, keeping her head the same height and allowing her legs to bend and straighten—Doug's advice had been pure bullshit. The air brushing her cheeks as she gained speed gave her confidence. It was a run she'd done all her life.
She caught a glimpse of Royce in the trees when she passed him and leaned into a curve before she arrived at a copse. She swooshed among the trees, still feeling the rise and fall of the bumps. The next part was tricky with several sharp turns, but she managed them with ease and remembered to keep her head down for the low branches. She skied through the final mogul and emerged from the trees only seconds before Royce did the same on the other side. Damn, he was good.
She bent at the waist to bring the run home. She gained distance from him with her better ability to navigate the moguls and pushed herself harder by anticipating the sweet victory. This time she’d be the one sending him packing.
But fresh powder was not her friend on a race over an open slope. Her skis sunk into a deeper pile of powder hidden in her path, twisting her legs. After a moment of air, one ski hit the ground at a jarring angle, and she fell on her ass, tumbling a few more feet down the hill. Rage made her numb to any pain. The bastard was going to win.
She took her goggles and helmet off and slammed them on the ground.
Royce turned to a stop, unclipped his skis and ran back. “Are you okay?”
“No!” Grace's breathing was shallow, but she had to yell at him. “First you fire me, and now I can't even beat you on the slopes. I hate you.”
He knelt next to her. She was startled when he brushed her hair out of her face and it didn't make her cringe. Maybe it was because his gloves were still on. Her anger faltered.
“I meant are you physically injured?”
She noticed for the first time that her leg was throbbing near the ankle. She winced, not wanting to answer his question. He would probably gloat, or worse, be nice some more. “I'm fine,” she said and tried to push up into a standing position. Pain shot through her leg, and she ended on her butt with a yelp.
“That doesn't sound good. Let me help you. I'm really not a monster.”
Grace unclipped her skis. “I'm sure it's nothing. I just twisted my leg funny when I fell.” He held out a hand to help her up. She glared at it but didn't think she could stand on her own. With a sigh of resignation, she took his hand.
A pulse of pain beat through her when she put weight on the injured leg, making her hop to her other foot and clutch his arm with both her hands. “Fuck.” She put her head on his shoulder without even thinking about it. The pain was like nothing she'd ever felt.
He wrapped his other arm around her back and said, “Want me to get the ski patrol?”
Grace didn't want to answer. His arm comforted and humiliated her all at the same time. Maybe if she stood for a few minutes, the pain would subside enough for her to make it down on her own; it was only a little farther. He lifted his arm from her back, and it felt like he was waving.
She heard a shooshing behind her. Someone stopped a little below and crunched back up.
“You guys need some help?”
Grace looked up and blushed: it was the scruffy ski instructor who'd had sex with his date while she gawked, except he was wearing a red coat with a white cross on the front like he was a medic. A smile grew across his face, and her cheeks burned hotter.
Royce said, “She hurt her ankle or leg, I think.”
“Oh bummer. I'll go get the snowmobile and take you to the clinic.”
Grace found her voice and said, “I don't think I need to go to the clinic. I'm sure I just twisted--” she ended with a cry when she tried to step forward. She was probably cutting off the circulation in Royce's arm by now. When she balanced herself again, she loosened her grip.
“Looks like a snowmobile,” said Royce.
“No problem,” said the patrol guy. “I'm happy to help. I'm Eric by the way.” He winked at Grace before turning and skiing down to the lodge.
“Did you see that?” said Royce. “He winked at you. I could be your boyfriend, and he's flirting with you.”
“Maybe he saw me slap you last night.”
“I think he was a little too busy to notice that.”
“Well, he wasn't too busy to notice me.” Grace wanted to snatch the words back immediately.
“You're a little kinky, aren't you?” He grinned at her and put his arm around her back again.
“No, you have me all wrong. I shouldn't have said that. I have rules when it comes to dating.” She tried to shove his arm away, but it made her almost fall.
He tightened his arm and said, “I didn't mean to upset you. I just saw you watching them last night.”
“It was hard to look away, okay? I couldn't believe I was the only one noticing or that they would just do that.” She swayed again, and he pulled her right up against him. She should be going nuts with the physical contact, but instead she found it soothing.